MIT students have enlisted in the war against AIDS through United Trauma Relief (UTR), organized last December by junior Sanjay Basu to prevent and alleviate suffering from war, poverty and disease around the world.
In recognition of his social commitment exemplified by the project, Mr. Basu has received a Harry S Truman scholarship. The $30,000 scholarships, awarded to students committed to public service, were presented last week to 80 juniors from 56 institutions of higher learning in the United States.
"This scholarship is the best way I have to be supported in pursuing a future in public service, and to continue studying poverty and health, which isn't always a field people are encouraged to go into," said Mr. Basu, a brain and cognitive sciences major from Naperville, IL.
UTR created a network of 200 college AIDS groups, community organizations and hospital pharmacies to collect unused, unexpired anti-AIDS medications discarded by patients who have changed their regimen to prevent viral resistance. UTR pays to ship the pills to MIT. They are repackaged and sent to a clinic in Haiti by the 10 MIT students who have enlisted in UTR.
Thus far, they have provided Haitian AIDS victims with more than 10,000 pills that otherwise would have been consigned to landfills in the United States. UTR has also provided food and supplies for earthquake victims in India and El Salvador.
"I started the group because I see the problem of polarized opportunity as an extreme injustice," said Mr. Basu, who plans to work with AIDS patients in Thailand this summer. "United Trauma Relief is an avenue for MIT students to engage inequality directly by working towards active redistribution initiatives.
"Our initiatives are unlike simple fundraising or donation efforts in that we get to know the problems closely and specifically tailor our assistance, with the cooperation of groups like Mï¿½dicins Sans Frontiï¿½ï¿½res (Doctors without Borders) and the International Red Cross, who have years of expertise in the areas we address."
UTR focused on Haiti to start its AIDS drug redistribution project because that country is the site of the HIV Equity Initiative, a project headed by the physicians' group Partners in Health, a leader in AIDS treatment.
"Hopefully, we will soon have a large enough stock of pills to branch out to Africa," said Mr. Basu, who also founded the MIT Journal of Undergraduate Research. "Already, one of our advisors has contacted a group in Tanzania that may serve as our next potential site of redistribution." Another future project involves sending food to Sudan for famine victims and prosthetics to Sierra Leone for people who lost limbs in the war.
Other MIT students involved in UTR include Nathan Wilson, a graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences; Vinod Rao, a junior majoring in biology; Catherine K. Foo, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science; Julia R. deKadt and Sudeb Dalai, both juniors in brain and cognitive sciences; and freshmen Christine M. Ortiz, Nnennia L. Ejebe and Parul Deora. More information about UTR is available on their web site.
Congress created the Truman Scholarship program in 1975 to honor the 33rd president of the United States. Scholarships are awarded each year to juniors who show academic promise, a sense of community responsibility and a commitment to a career in government or the not-for-profit sector.
The 2001 scholars were selected by 19 independent panels on the basis of leadership potential, intellectual ability and social commitment. The panels typically include a university president, a federal judge, a distinguished public servant and a past Truman Scholarship winner. Each panel interviewed candidates from a three- or four-state region and generally elected one scholar from each state and one or two at-large scholars from the region.
Assistant Professor of History Meg Jacobs, MIT's faculty representative for the Truman Scholarship program, said, "Sanjay is an exceptional student. Not only has he excelled in his academic career -- he sees the importance of connecting his technical training to broader social issues. I have no doubt that Sanjay will help transform the world of public health."
The Truman Scholars will assemble May 20 for a weeklong leadership development program at William Jewell College in Liberty, MO, and receive their awards in a special ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, MO on May 27.
Previous Truman Scholars from MIT have included Edward Migel of New Jersey in 1995, Jacob Orenstein-Cardona of Puerto Rico in 1997 and Monisha M. Merchant of Lakewood, CO in 1998.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 2, 2001.